Here's what you need to know...

  1. Bulgarian training is one of the simplest strength training methods, but most people with jobs can't follow it exactly.
  2. Traditionally, the system is characterized by only training a few lifts 2-3 times a day. Reps are low and you work up to your max several times a week.
  3. Benefits: It's easy to plan, it makes you very good at a select few movements, and it makes you tougher.
  4. Drawbacks: It can limit muscular development, it takes a lot of time, and it can trash the nervous system.
  5. Adapt it by including more variability, cycling of RMs, varying intensity, limiting training to one daily workout, and including bodybuilding work.

The Mystique of Bulgarian Training

"Bulgarian training" used to have an almost mystic aura.

It was seen as some secret training approach to get world class results in Olympic lifting. In reality, it wasn't. In fact, it was the simplest training method ever used by strength athletes!

However, in order for it to be adapted to sports like powerlifting or even bodybuilding, we need to make some modifications.

What Characterizes the Bulgarian System?

1 – Extreme Specificity

The original Bulgarian system revolves around the competitive lifts (snatch, clean & jerk) for the main workload and the only assistance work consists of front squats and the power variation of the competitive lifts (power snatch, power clean).

Back squats are used once in a while. This is in stark contrast with other successful schools of thought in weightlifting where many assistance lifts are used.

2 – Extreme Frequency

The competitive lifts or their variations are done at every workout, and often 2-3 daily sessions are done during periods of intense training.

This means that the athletes clean & jerk and snatch up to 12 times a week and the number of front squat sessions isn't far behind. The logic is that the more often you practice a skill, the better you become at it.

3 – Maximum Effort

With standard Bulgarian training you work up for the maximum weight you can lift for a single rep several times a week, sometimes daily.

Instead of having "light days," Bulgarian lifters max out on the power snatch instead of the full snatch and on the power clean and jerk instead of the clean & jerk.

4 – Very Low Reps

Elite weightlifters rarely go above 3 reps on the competitive lifts, above 5 reps for basic strength movements, and above 8 reps for assistance work.

However, in the original Bulgarian system, this practice was taken to extreme with most sets being done for 1 or 2 reps with only the occasional 3-rep set.

5 – Extreme Training Segmentation

Elite athletes in all sports fragment their daily training volume into more than one daily session, but the original Bulgarian system took this to the extreme.

Normally, the workload was divided into two, sometimes three, daily sessions and those two or three sessions where themselves divided into two to three "units."

For example, they would snatch for 30-40 minutes, rest 20-30 minutes; clean & jerk for 30 minutes, rest 20 minutes; and front squat for 20-30 minutes. That was one session.

Pros of the Bulgarian System

1 – Maximizing strength-skill

Practicing the same lifts every day or multiple times a day is the best way to become technically efficient.

Strength-skill work is great if you want to become good at a specific movement, but it's not the best way to build overall strength, and the "strength" built via strength-skill work can be lost much more quickly than strength built via volume and a greater number of exercises.

Still, if all you care about is being good at the snatch, clean & jerk, and front squat, going heavy every day can work.

2 – Easy to plan

You have several things to think about when planning your training: volume (sets & reps), exercise selection, intensity (as a percentage of your max), frequency of doing each lift, training split, etc.

The Bulgarian system makes this process much simpler since you don't have to worry about exercise selection (you do the same three lifts over and over), training split, intensity (you pretty much always go to your maximum possible effort on a given day), reps (it's always 1, 2 and sometimes 3), or sets (you're working up toward your max, so the number of sets take care of themselves).

It throws the "paralysis by analysis" phenomenon out of the window.

3 – It makes your balls grow

Bulgarian training is basically "brainless," but for it to work you must be able to give it all you've got day in and day out, even if you don't feel rested or strong. It also has you make maximum attempts often so you stop being afraid of doing maxes.

Many lifters have great technique up to 85 or even 90% of their max, but as soon as they start being intimidated by a weight, they lose their "balls" and their technique goes down the crapper. The more often you lift heavy, the more natural it feels and the less it affects you.

4 – It teaches you to feel your body

When you test yourself every day you learn to know when your body is up to performing. You develop a much more acute sense of knowing when you can really go at it or when you don't have it. This is an important tool to develop when using autoregulatory training.

Clean

Cons of the Bulgarian System

1 – It can lead to bad habits

Motor learning is all about frequency of practice. Practicing the same lifts over and over will make those lifts more automatic. This is a huge pro if you practice the proper technique.

But if you practice an incorrect movement or make the same technical mistake every time you do a snatch or clean & jerk, you then ingrain that mistake. It becomes much harder to correct.

Furthermore, when you're going for your maximum, chances are that you'll suffer some degradation in technique, and if go for your daily max until you miss every day you can develop some flaws that will become hard to fix.

4 – It can get boring

Remember that international level weightlifters in East European and Asian countries are essentially state workers. They are paid to train. It's no different to them than a factory worker doing the same job eight hours per day.

So it really doesn't matter to them if it's boring or not. It's their job and they see it as such. But for us it's our chosen hobby. Sure we want to be the best we can, but enjoying what we do is also a big part of it. Most of us need some variety to maintain our motivation.

3 – It's harder to correct weaknesses

When your snatch fails to improve (for example), it isn't always because you have a problem with the snatch itself. As such, doing more snatches isn't often the answer.

You might need to strengthen some muscles or body function/movement pattern. You might need to practice only a specific portion of the full lift. If all you do are snatches, cleans, jerks, and squats, it becomes almost impossible to correct weak links.

4 – Limited muscular development

If you're a competitive weightlifter and plan to go to the Olympics, it probably doesn't matter much to you what you look like.

Alexeyev, a Russian lifter with a huge belly, once said that he looked that way because it helped him lift more weight and that he would worry about how he looks when he stops competing.

Very few elite weightlifters actually look muscular. There are exceptions (Lu Xiaojun, Klokov, etc.), but most don't look much more muscular than the average guy you see in the gym.

I love doing sets of 1 or 2 reps, but honestly this practice won't build a lot of muscle by itself. If that is all you ever do, especially if you limit your exercise selection, you aren't likely to build a muscular physique unless you're genetically blessed.

5 – It's very hard on the nervous system

Although it's not metabolically demanding because of the low mechanical workload, working up to a 1 rep max is very draining emotionally and neurologically. It can even affect the hormonal system (the adrenal glands especially) over time.

People have recently been saying that "CNS fatigue" isn't real. Well maybe it is or maybe it isn't, but something is definitely going on when you work up to your max frequently.

6 – It's time consuming

Doing the original Bulgarian system is pretty much a full-time job. If you have an actual full-time job, it will be hard to do both.

Bulgarian Principles Adapted to Other Systems

The cornerstone principles of the Bulgarian system are solid:

  1. Focusing on a few lifts to improve neural factors
  2. Frequent practice of selected lifts
  3. Pushing hard very often
  4. Segmented training

But the Bulgarian system isn't optimal for most lifters. It can work for the genetically-gifted lifter whose technique is already solid. However, most of us need more variability to sustain progression, not only to keep motivation high, but to strengthen weaker links in the chain.

Now, you can use a Bulgarian-ish system to build strength, regardless of whether you're interested in improving your Olympic lifts, your powerlifts, or just getting strong overall. You could also adapt many of these principles when training mainly to build muscle.

Modifications, however, would be necessary:

  1. More variability. I work in 3-week cycles. During those three weeks I pick a single variation of the lifts I want to improve and I do them 4 days a week. I do the actual "competition" lift on another day. After a 3-week cycle, I change the main exercises.
  2. RM cycling. Always working toward a 1RM is psychologically, neurologically, and physically draining. So, during each 3-week cycle, we cycle the RMs. On week 1 the training zone is a 3RM; on week 2 it is a 2RM; and on week 3 it is a 1RM.
  3. Planned intensity variation during the week. The main principle behind the Bulgarian system is doing a maximum effort frequently. But for most people, it's unrealistic to go for a max almost every day. Working to a max twice a week, however, is sufficient for maximum results. On the other days the planned intensity will be between 70 and 90% of the maximum reached that week. This will allow for better long-term progression.
  4. One daily session. In an ideal world, any serious lifter would split his daily volume into two sessions. This improves the quality of the work because most of the work is done in a fresher and more focused state. It also leads to greater physiological and neurological adaptation. Unfortunately, it's an unrealistic way to train for most people.
  5. The inclusion of a small amount of "bodybuilding" work. It's necessary to take corrective measures to fix a muscle that's lagging or that isn't properly stimulated by the three main lifts you selected. This is important both for maximum performance and injury prevention.
Deficit Deadlift

The Modified Bulgarian System

Here's a 12-week cycle designed to maximize performance in the powerlifts – squat, bench press, deadlift. It uses the principles of Bulgarian training but is modified to encompass the reality of the natural trainee with a full-time job.

12-Week Powerlifting Performance Cycle

General Training Phase 1 (3 Weeks)

Week 1

Monday
A.Zercher Squat Work up to 3RM
B.Deficit Deadlift Work up to 3RM
C.Floor Press Work up to 3RM
D.Chest-Supported Barbell Row 4 x 8-10

Tuesday
A.Zercher Squat 4 x 3 @ 80% of 3RM
B.Deficit Deadlift 4 x 3 @ 80% of 3RM
C.Floor Press 4 x 3 @ 80% of 3RM
D.Pull-Ups, Pronated Grip 4 x 8-10 (use band help if needed, or added weight if possible)

Thursday
A.Zercher Squat 4 x 3 @ 90% of 3RM
B.Deficit Deadlift 4 x 3 @ 90% of 3RM
C.Floor Press 4 x 3 @ 90% of 3RM
D.Seated Cable Row 4 x 8-10

Friday
A.Zercher Squat 4 x 3 @ 70% of 3RM
B.Deficit Deadlift 4 x 3 @ 70% of 3RM
C.Floor Press 4 x 3 @ 70% of 3RM
D.Pull-Ups, Supinated Grip 4 x 8-10

Saturday (Competition Style)
A.Squat Work up to 3RM
B.Deadlift Work up to 3RM
C.Bench Press Work up to 3RM

Week 2

All exercises are the same. "D" remains the same. Here are the differences for the A, B and C exercises:

Monday Work up to a 2RM
Tuesday 4 x 2 @ 80% of 2RM
Thursday 4 x 2 @ 90% of 2RM
Friday 4 x 2 @ 70% of 2RM
Saturday (Competition Style) Work up to 2RM

Week 3

Again, all exercises are the same and "D" remains the same. A, B, and C differences:

Monday Work up to a 1RM
Tuesday 4 x 1 @ 80% of 1RM
Thursday 4 x 1 @ 90% of 1RM
Friday 4 x 1 @ 70% of 1RM
Saturday (Competition Style) Work up to 1RM

Front Squat

General Training Phase 2 (3 Weeks)

Week 4

Monday
A.Front Squat Work up to 3RM
B.Pin-Pull Below Knees Work up to 3RM
C.Incline Bench Press Work up to 3RM
D.Chest-Supported Barbell Row 4 x 8-10

Tuesday
A.Front Squat 4 x 3 @ 80% of 3RM
B.Pin-Pull Below Knees 4 x 3 @ 80% of 3RM
C.Incline Bench Press 4 x 3 @ 80% of 3RM
D.Pull-Ups, Pronated Grip 4 x 8-10 (use band help if needed, or added weight if possible)

Thursday
A.Front Squat 4 x 3 @ 90% of 3RM
B.Pin-Pull Below Knees 4 x 3 @ 90% of 3RM
C.Incline Bench Press 4 x 3 @ 90% of 3RM
D.Seated Cable Row 4 x 8-10

Friday
A.Front Squat 4 x 3 @ 70% of 3RM
B.Pin-Pull Below Knees 4 x 3 @ 70% of 3RM
C.Incline Bench Press 4 x 3 @ 70% of 3RM
D.Pull-Ups, Supinated Grip 4 x 8-10 (use band help if needed, or added weight if possible)

Saturday (Competition Style)
A.Squat Work up to 3RM
B.Deadlift Work up to 3RM
C.Bench Press Work up to 3RM

Week 5

All exercises are the same. "D" remains the same. Here are the differences for the A, B and C exercises:

Monday Work up to 2RM
Tuesday 4 x 2 @ 80% of 2RM
Thursday 4 x 2 @ 90% of 2RM
Friday 4 x 2 @ 70% of 2RM
Saturday (Competition Style) Work up to 2RM

Week 6

All exercises are the same and "D" remains the same. A, B, and C differences:

Monday Work up to 1RM
Tuesday 4 x 1 @ 80% of 1RM
Thursday 4 x 1 @ 90% of 1RM
Friday 4 x 1 @ 70% of 1RM
Saturday (Competition Style) Work up to 1RM

Sumo Deadlift

Specific Training Phase 1 (3 Weeks)

Week 7

Monday
A.Box Squat (Legal Depth) Work up to 3RM
B.Sumo Deadlift Work up to 3RM
C.Close-Grip Bench Press Work up to 3RM
D.Chest-Supported Barbell Row 4 x 8-10

Tuesday
A.Box Squat (Legal Depth) 4 x 3 @ 80% of 3RM
B.Sumo Deadlift 4 x 3 @ 80% of 3RM
C.Close-Grip Bench Press 4 x 3 @ 80% of 3RM
D.Pull-Ups, Pronated Grip 4 x 8-10 (use band help if needed, or added weight if possible)

Thursday
A.Box Squat (Legal Depth) 4 x 3 @ 90% of 3RM
B.Sumo Deadlift 4 x 3 @ 90% of 3RM
C.Close-Grip Bench Press 4 x 3 @ 90% of 3RM
D.Seated Cable Row 4 x 8-10

Friday
A.Box Squat (Legal Depth) 4 x 3 @ 70% of 3RM
B.Sumo Deadlift 4 x 3 @ 70% of 3RM
C.Close-Grip Bench Press 4 x 3 @ 70% of 3RM
D.Pull-Ups, Supinated Grip 4 x 8-10

Saturday (Competition Style)
A.Squat Work up to 3RM
B.Deadlift Work up to 3RM
C.Bench Press Work up to 3RM

Week 8

All exercises are the same. "D" remains the same. The differences for the A, B and C:

Monday Work up to 2RM
Tuesday 4 x 2 @ 80% of 2RM
Thursday 4 x 2 @ 90% of 2RM
Friday 4 x 2 @ 70% of 2RM
Saturday (Competition Style) Work up to 2RM

Week 9

All exercises are the same and "D" remains the same. A, B, and C differences:

Monday Work up to 1RM
Tuesday 4 x 1 @ 80% of 1RM
Thursday 4 x 1 @ 90% of 1RM
Friday 4 x 1 @ 70% of 1RM
Saturday (Competition Style) Work up to 1RM

Bench Press

Specific Training Phase 2 (3 Weeks)

Week 10

Monday
A.Squat Work up to 3RM
B.Deadlift Work up to 3RM
C.Bench Press Work up to 3RM
D.Chest-Supported Barbell Row 4 x 8-10

Tuesday
A.Squat 4 x 3 @ 80% of 3RM
B.Deadlift 4 x 3 @ 80% of 3RM
C.Bench Press 4 x 3 @ 80% of 3RM
D.Pull-Ups, Pronated Grip 4 x 8-10 (use band help if needed, or added weight if possible)

Thursday
A.Squat 4 x 3 @ 90% of 3RM
B.Deadlift 4 x 3 @ 90% of 3RM
C.Bench Press 4 x 3 @ 90% of 3RM
D.Seated Cable Row 4 x 8-10

Friday
A.Squat 4 x 3 @ 70% of 3RM
B.Deadlift 4 x 3 @ 70% of 3RM
C.Bench Press 4 x 3 @ 70% of 3RM
D.Pull-Ups, Supinated Grip 4 x 8-10

Saturday (Competition Style)
A.Squat Work up to 3RM
B.Deadlift Work up to 3RM
C.Bench Press Work up to 3RM

Week 11

All exercises are the same. "D" remains the same. A, B and C differences:

Monday Work up to 2RM
Tuesday 4 x 2 @ 80% of 2RM
Thursday 4 x 2 @ 90% of 2RM
Friday 4 x 2 @ 70% of 2RM
Saturday (Competition Style) Work up to 2RM

Week 12

Again, all exercises are the same and "D" remains the same. A, B and C differences:

Monday Work up to 1RM
Tuesday 4 x 1 @ 80% of 1RM
Thursday 4 x 1 @ 90% of 1RM
Friday 4 x 1 @ 70% of 1RM
Saturday (Competition Style) Work up to 1RM

You would then deload for a week and test your maxes in a competition.

How to Fix Your Specific Weaknesses

This cycle is general. These exercises fit most people, but ideally you should pick variations of the lifts that work on your individual weaknesses. Here are alternate exercises you could use based on where your sticking points are:

Squat

If the sticking point is below parallel:

Phase 1: Wide Stance Squat
Phase 2: Paused Squat
Phase 3: Low Box Squat
Phase 4: Squat (competitive style)

If the sticking point is above parallel:

Phase 1: Zercher Squat
Phase 2: Front Squat
Phase 3: Box Squat (legal depth)
Phase 4: Squat (competitive style)

Deadlift

If the sticking point is breaking from the floor:

Phase 1: Deficit Deadlift
Phase 2: Floating Deadlift (deficit deadlift without bringing the barbell back on the floor)
Phase 3: Sumo Deadlift
Phase 4: Deadlift (competitive style)

If the sticking point is around the knees:

Phase 1: Zercher Deadlift
Phase 2: Romanian Deadlift
Phase 3: Pin-Pull Below Knees (focus on pulling with the posterior chain; not on leveraging by bringing the knees under the bar)
Phase 4: Deadlift (competitive style)

If the sticking point is above the knees:

Phase 1: Barbell Hip Thrust
Phase 2: Pin-Pull above knees
Phase 3: Sumo Deadlift
Phase 4: Deadlift (competitive style)

Bench Press

If the sticking point is off the chest:

Phase 1: Floor Press
Phase 2: Cambered-Bar Bench Press or Full-Range Dumbbell Press
Phase 3: Spotto Press
Phase 4: Bench Press (competition style)

If the sticking point is around mid-range:

Phase 1: Incline Bench Press
Phase 2: 3- Board Press
Phase 3: 2- Board Press
Phase 4: Bench Press (competition style)

If the sticking point is at lockout:

Phase 1: Close-Grip Floor Press
Phase 2: Close-Grip Incline Bench Press
Phase 3: Close-Grip Bench Press
Phase 4: Bench Press (competition style)

Adding Bodybuilding Work

A Bulgarian-style program is minimalist by nature. Because of the emphasis on the big lifts, you might find that some muscles are neglected.

If so, you can add isolation work to hypertrophy the neglected muscles. Do this by adding 15-20 minutes worth of isolation work at the end of the regular workouts. Add that extra work on Tuesdays and Fridays, which are the lower intensity days.

On Fridays only adding work for muscles that do not play a significant role in the main lifts because you'll be maxing out the next day. On Tuesdays you should work the muscle(s) you feel are holding you back in your main movements.

For example:

Tuesday: Bodybuilding work for triceps, delts, and pectorals
Friday: Bodybuilding work for lats and biceps

Use isolation exercises for sets of 8-12 reps for that extra work. Pump-enhancing techniques like partials, slow reps, rest/pause, double contraction and the like can also be used.

Related:  The Truth About 1RMs

Related:  More on doing the same lift every day

Related:  More on the effects of Bulgarian training, both good and bad